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G-Braves fall to Norfolk in home opener

LAWRENCEVILLE - The Daleski family was among the first in line when the gates opened Friday at Gwinnett Stadium, offering fans in the Atlanta area an option of minor league baseball.

Kenneth Daleski, 7, was wearing an Atlanta Braves cap, but that was just because he hadn't visited the souvenir shop yet with his parents, Richard and Denise. 'I'm not an Atlanta Braves fan. I'm a Gwinnett Braves fan,' he said.

Gwinnett County built a $64 million ballpark just 36 miles from Atlanta's Turner Field and the International League came, with the Braves moving their Class AAA team from Richmond after more than four decades in Virginia.

The Gwinnett Braves hosted the Norfolk Tides in their first home game Friday night and a sellout crowd of 10,427 crammed into the stadium, which features 23 suites as well as special club seating.

Gwinnett lost 7-4, with Norfolk's Nolan Reimold breaking a tie with a grand slam in the seventh inning. But many of the fans still stood and cheered for their new hometown team when the final out was recorded.

'This isn't a thing like Richmond,' Gwinnett catcher Clint Sammons, a graduate of Parkview High School in nearby Lilburn, said of the ballpark and the crowd before the game. 'This place is beautiful and the fans were great.'

'I really like it,' said Norfolk catcher Matt Wieters, a former Georgia Tech star and Baltimore's top prospect. 'It has all the updated features, but it still looks like an old-time ballpark. It's just right, I think.'

The Gwinnett players loved their spacious new clubhouse. 'It makes you feel like you're in the major leagues,' infielder Brooks Conrad said.

The Daleski family, though, was happy to be in a minor league ballpark. They live in Duluth, only about 10 miles away from Gwinnett Stadium, and the trip was much easier than traveling to Turner Field.

'We'll still go to a lot of games in Atlanta because we love the Braves and baseball,' Denise Daleski said. 'I'd live in a ballpark if I could. But it is so nice having a minor league team this close. This is great for a family.'

Ground wasn't broken in Gwinnett until June, and the construction timetable was short. But everything was ready on time for players and fans, with just a few touches remaining.

The berm behind the outfield fence filled up fast, with families spreading out blankets over the newly laid sod. Tickets cost $6-$15, a far cry from major league prices.

International League president Randy Mobley took part in pregame ceremonies and will take in the opener of a new stadium in Columbus, Ohio, today.

'It's great to have new facilities like these,' Mobley said. 'Minor league baseball has come a long way, but it remains family-friendly and relatively inexpensive. Our ticket prices are affordable, and that helps in economic times like these.'

The Braves like having their top farm team so close because it makes player movement much easier. 'We can have a player in Atlanta in no time,' general manager Frank Wren said. 'That's a big plus.'

When outfielder Gregor Blanco was sent down by the Braves to Gwinnett just before the start of the season, he didn't have to worry about finding a place to live. 'I'm not far either way,' he said.

Being so close to the major league team also helps keep up the spirits of a minor leaguer. 'You know you're almost there,' Conrad said. 'It is just a few more miles.'